When Jason Alvey moved to the United States in 2001, he had to get used to plenty of new things, including a different way of playing football.
Alvey, the owner and founder of St. Louis Park craft beer store The Four Firkins, is a native Australian, so naturally, he grew up a fan of Australian rules football.
“It’s an absolute religion," he said of "footy's" popularity back home. "You cannot understate how popular this sport is.
“I have a lot of fond memories of it.”
But here in the United States, "gridiron"—what Australians call American football—is king. So when Alvey found a group of dedicated Aussie football players right here in the Twin Cities, a sponsorship—and kinship—came quickly.
For the past three years, The Four Firkins has sponsored the Minnesota Freeze, a club footy team that has grown to 60 members and competes at the national level every year.
Club president Brian Driscoll—a St. Louis Park resident himself—said the team came together informally in the late 1990s. As membership grew, the team eventually sought out club membership in the United States Australian Football League. Since 2005, the Freeze has won two USAFL titles.
Like Driscoll, many of the players on the team are American, with only a handful of native Australians mixed in. Driscoll, who picked up the sport from his Australian brother-in-law, said this shows the sport's broad appeal.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun,’” Driscoll noted about his first experience with footy, at the 2006 nationals. “I’ve loved it ever since.”
Like American football, Aussie rules football features plenty of tackling and physicality. But differences exist. Players don't wear padding, and 18—not 11—generally play on one side. The field is larger than an American gridiron, and oval-shaped, not rectangular.
Players attempt to advance the ball down field by running with the ball, or bumping it to a teammate. Scoring is done by kicking the ball through a series of goal posts.
“It’s a really fun game to watch," Alvey said.
The Freeze features an array of players, ranging from old pros to beginners. Driscoll said that's part of the fun of the club.
“We take all folks, all comers," he said, adding that weekly practice at Lake Nokomis is great exercise.
But the team is serious, too, and the 24 best players will head to Mason, Ohio, this coming weekend for the national tournament.
"We're going, and we're going to win the Division Two national championship," said a confident Arlo Kemp, one of several native Australians on the squad. Kemp also lives in St. Louis Park.
"We're actually one of the premier clubs in the United States," Driscoll added.
Alvey takes plenty of satisfaction knowing he's helped this club—and his country's namesake sport—blossom stateside, and he's become good friends with a lot of the players. He said they often come in to his store to buy beer, and they all like to get together socially.
When the Freeze take the field at nationals in a few days, Alvey will be proud that a Four Firkins logo will be displayed prominently on the players' jerseys.
“This is the big sponsorship for us, and we really enjoy working with them," he said. “They’re working so hard and they’re so serious about (Aussie football), but at the same time they’re a very inclusive club.”